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Glacial Region of the Alps
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Glacial Region of the Alps

On the higher parts of lofty mountains in the Alps more snow falls in each year than is melted on the spot. A portion of this is carried away by the wind before it is consolidated; a larger portion accumulates in hollows and depressions of the surface, and is gradually converted into glacier ice, which descends by a slow secular motion into the deeper valleys, where it goes to swell perennial streams.

As on a mountain the snow does not lie in beds of uniform thickness, and some parts are more exposed to the sun and warm winds than others, we commonly find beds of snow alternating with exposed slopes covered with brilliant vegetation; and to the observer near at hand there is no appearance in the least corresponding to the term limit of perpetual snow, though the case is otherwise when a high mountain-chain is viewed from a distance. Similar conditions are repeated at many different points, so that the level at which large snow-beds show themselves along its flanks as approximately horizontal. But this holds good only so far as the conditions are similar. On the opposite sides of the same chain the exposure to the sun or to warm winds may cause a wide difference in the level of permanent snow; but in some cases the increased fall of snow on the side exposed to moist winds may more than compensate the increased influence of the sun's rays.

Still, even with these reservations, the so-called line of perpetual snow is not fixed. The occurrence of favourable meteorological conditions during several successive seasons may and does increase the extent of the snow-fields, and lower the limit of seemingly permanent snow; while an opposite state of things may cause the limit to rise higher on the flanks of the mountains. Hence all attempts to fix accurately the level of pernetual snow in the Alps are fallacious, and can at the best approach only to local accuracy for a particular district. In some parts of the Alps the limit may be set at about 2400 m above the sea, while in others it cannot be placed much below 2900 m. As very little snow can rest on rocks that lie at an angle exceeding 60°, and this is soon removed by the wind, some steep masses of rock remain bare even near the summits of the highest peaks, but as almost every spot offering the least hold for vegetation is covered with snow, few flowering plants are seen above 3350 m.

There is reason to think, however, that it is the want of soil rather than climatal conditions that checks the upward extension of the alpine flora. Increased direct effect of solar radiation compensates for the cold of the nights, and in the few spots where plants have been found in flower up to a height of 3650 m, nothing has indicated that the processes of vegetation were arrested by the severe cold which they must sometimes endure. The climate of the glacial region has often been compared to that of the polar regions, but they are widely different. Here, intense solar radiation by day, which raises the surface when dry to a temperature approaching 27°C (80°F), alternates with severe frost by night. There, the Sun, which never sets sends feeble rays that maintain a low equable temperature, rarely rising more than a few degrees above the freezing-point. Hence the upper region of the Alps sustains a far more varied and brilliant vegetation.